Ash Wednesday Ponderings
This is from my friend Rebecca who lives and works in Mozambique:
“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Hundreds of tongues utter these words today in congregations around the world. They are words by which Christians acknowledge their mortality, which is tangibly symbolized today through the sign of the cross, drawn on the forehead in ash. Though Ash Wednesday is not described in the Bible, has been used by Christians for centuries to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40-day season in the church calendar that leads up to Christianity’s most climatic day, Easter. The period of forty days echoes the forty days in which Jesus, in his humanity, fasted after his baptism. And the ashes reflect the frailty, brokenness, and emptiness that so often fill our world and our hearts.
It’s harder for me to ignore life’s fragility here in Mozambique than when I’m in the US. The medical technology that prevents and resolves so many American health problems rarely insulates Mozambicans from death. Mortality is tangible. With the aid of a saline drip and some simple medicines, Luria fought for life for weeks, until her death in hospital last Friday. Earlier this month, while my 18-year-old friend Jorge was nursing his younger sister (who’s HIV positive, and who he describes as “between life and death,”) his older brother died during surgery on a broken arm. Struggle and strife pervade the whole world, but in places like Mozambique, this struggle is commonly for life itself. In this context, ashes are a particularly honest symbol.
Christians also often mark Ash Wednesday with fasting, in commemoration of Jesus’s fasting. As someone who resists the separation of spiritual and physical, I’ve long appreciated the prophet Isaiah’s description of true fasting:
“Is this not the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Physical fasting from food can serve as an experiential reminder of the importance of reaching out in the tangible acts of justice that Isaiah describes.
On Sunday, my British friend who is serving here as a priest preached, as usual, on the Bible readings assigned for the day. This week, they described fasting. After the service she noticed a long-faced woman in the congregation, and was given a simple explanation for the woman’s trouble: hunger. What, my friend wondered, did her sermon on fasting mean to such a person? Isaiah calls for sharing of bread with the hungry. But what does it mean to truly fast when YOU are one of “the hungry”?
Despite living here in Mozambique, I am not Mozambican, and do not know struggles of hunger first-hand. But we share our humanity, and we can all say together: “Dust we are, and to dust we will return.”
Forced fasting, or hunger, is taken as a fact of life in Mozambique. While Westerners are in the midst of our “Christmas season” or our “skiing season,” Mozambicans are in the midst of the annual “hunger season.” Stockpiles from last year’s harvest are dwindling, and this year’s crops aren’t yet ready for harvest.
Corn is the staple food here in Northern Mozambique. Corn is valued not in the I-really-like-to-eat-corn sense, but in the corn-is-the-only-thing-I-can-afford-that-comes-close-to-filling-me-up sense. We dry, shuck, pound, and redry the corn before boiling it to make a gelatinous goop that we call “shima.” (Though I haven’t traveled much in Africa, I believe it’s basically the same as South Africa’s “pap,” Swahili Africa’s “ugali” and Western Africa’s “fufu.”) It’s eaten by hand, and generally dipped in some sort of sauce (green leaves with peanuts or coconut; beans; or, more rarely, sardines, fish, or goat meat). And it indeed does a pretty good job at filling up the stomach. (Last week someone asked me whether I normally ate “food” for dinner, or whether I ate other things. I probed, and learned that “food” included shima and maybe rice; everything else—soups, salads, and especially sandwiches—were snacks.)
Mozambicans generally plant in about November, and harvest in about April. (Some regions are lucky enough to get enough rain for two planting and harvest cycles.) As you may have heard, Southern Africa had a miserable rainfall last year, which means that the corn harvest was abysmal.
Though Lichingans are hungry, and hungrier this year than they are in a typical March, in general they are getting by—eating one or two meals a day instead of three. In contrast, I’ve heard stories of people in other regions of the country who are surviving by digging and eating roots and other wild plant products. Occasionally these roots are toxic, and some people have been poisoned to death. More frighteningly, it looks like this year’s hunger may be repeated next year in parts of the country. Though Lichinga is lush, parts of central Mozambique and Malawi have seen barely a drop of rain. For people in these regions, the end is not in sight.
The level of hunger corresponds with the price of corn. Last June, a bucket of corn cost about $2. Now it’s nearly $8.
Lent is not the end of the story. Lent culminates in Easter: the celebration of new life. There are already glimpses of Easter. More and more people living with HIV are receiving miracle-working antiretroviral drugs, and more people are getting tested sooner, giving these drugs a better chance to take effect. Lichinga, in the midst of a good rainy season, is already brilliantly green, and the corn is growing high. Christians believe we are to live as Easter people, so 40 days from now, I’ll share more fully some Mozambican stories of new life. But to be Easter people, we must first remember that dust we are, and to dust we shall return.
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